“Weeping Or Lost You, American Mouth” or Just Lyrical Nonsense? Part 1

This last weekend, my friend John came to visit from Stanford University to play the organ for an Evensong service in one of the local churches. John and I became good friends last year through our mutual zeal for an aesthetic resurgence in the Church, our love of cultural critique and literature, and our craving for aged Irish cheeses. John is double-majoring in Organ Performance and Computer Science at Stanford University and has dedicated the major part of his life to music. He blogs at the excellently-written Collegium Novum Musicae. His latest post is a very (very!) reduced version of our conversation.

We were walking back home from the church service when we started conversing about this question: “What’s with the lack of clarity and meaning in popular lyrics today?” I’m splitting our arguments into two posts (this post contains mine) even though we were both firing at the same target. We just used different kinds of ammo. John’s observation was formidable and was a response to my argument, and deserves a full post of its own.

Music is the art form with which we interact the most on a daily basis, and yet, paradoxically, it is the most removed from its position as a medium for truth, goodness, and beauty and is pushed to the side. As I told John, I was sitting at a restaurant a few weeks ago waiting for a burger and writing about music and language, when Mumford and Sons started playing over the restaurant’s speakers. Sitting on the bar stool with the waiters and waitresses swirling choreographically around me I realized that I was dealing with three instances of language: spoken word, written word, and sung word. As I wrote in my notebook at the time, “Of the three forms of language—explicit English formed into sentences and fragments—the sung word is the only one which is present to communicate absolutely nothing to anyone.”

In what state is the English language that even when set to music—something that is meant to enhance the message altogether and increase its rhetorical effectiveness, its glory, and add depth to its meaning—it is cast to the outer darkness of the background so easily and frivolously?

If George Orwell lost the prophetic battle about entertainment to Neil Postman, he won the prophetic battle of the decadence of the English language in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Though the title contains the word “Politics” (Aha! Your argument is invalid because Orwell wrote about the English language in politics, not music!) Orwell’s argument is based on an assumption that the use of English is disheveled, period; He then proceeds to single out its effect on politics.

Orwell says “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” He makes this statement, unthinkably to the postmodern mind, after explaining how a passage from Ecclesiastes is the opposite of unclear modern English. “As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

The Latin professor at our college gave us an assignment a few weeks ago to translate a popular song into Latin. A good translation is one in which words are not translated directly necessarily, but in which the meaning of a sentence takes precedence. A girl in my class wanted to translate “I Want to Move It” from Madagascar as “Moveam, Moveam” (a direct translation) and our professor explained why her translation was sterile, meaningless, and pancake-flat: it didn’t carry any of the innuendo and crude humor of the English, even though the words might have been direct equivalents. With this in mind, we continued to look for songs to translate, paying special attention to the meaning of sentences as opposed to the words only, looking for the depth of a stanza or verse.

Songs were, one by one, completely exposed for the empty symphonic husks that they really were. Meaningful meaningless words strung together, vainly hinting at various meanings at once and eluding an answer. Lyrical poetry is now the art of saying nothing beautifully. Relativism beheaded truth and all of us kept singing. “Roman cavalry choirs are singing.” What was that, Chris Martin? “The letters that you left behind/ No longer shall I read/ Your blood’s between the pages/ And I can’t stand to see you bleed.” What is Johnny Flynn singing about? Hm. Maybe I’ll find meaning here: “I was a quick-wit boy, diving too deep for coins/ All of your street light eyes wide on my plastic toys/ Then when the cops closed the fair, I cut my long baby hair/ Stole me a dog-eared map and called for you everywhere/ Have I found you/ Flightless bird, jealous, weeping or lost you, american mouth/ Big pill looming.” Nope.

This is a quick rundown of musical poetry in the postmodern world, and I would agree (and am thankful) that there are many exceptions to this—rap being one of the main examples. Also, I cringe every time I have to cite out of context, so I encourage anyone to listen to the full songs. Still, even if the song does have meaning, it’s a slave to unclarity and murky honesty. There are various reasons why I think this has happened (which merit their own future post), but what John and I were exploring was the general  effects that this has on Christians and Church music. Here they are, quickly, in four broad points:

1. Inconsistent aesthetic. Consider a Christian who is interested in an aesthetic renovation of the arts. He is in college and researches with ferocity about truth, goodness, and beauty, arguing against postmodern relativism in aesthetics—he’s identified it in paintings and movies and literature and even drastic examples of music like John Cage or Milton Babbitt. Then, he writes a paper about the defense of Christian art while singing “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon/ Everything in its right place/ There are two colours in my head/ What is that you tried to say?” by one of his favorite bands, Radiohead. Aesthetic dualism of this sort is not just prevalent—it’s the norm, and still very few stop and think “Hey, what did I just sing?”

2. Confused musical imagination. As N.D. Wilson bluntly put it, “If you listen to stupid music, watch stupid movies, and read stupid books…well, congratulations, you’re stupid.” Linguist relativism of this magnitude, especially in large quantities, carves a deep chasm of indifference in the musical imagination of the hearer, a groove into which eventually any song, from the latest Ke$ha hit to Handel’s Messiah, falls regardless of its content, genre, or meaning.

3. Disarmament against critique. This is one of the most frustrating and destructive effects of meaningful meaningless poetry: to tell someone that a song by Mumford and Sons or Bon Jovi or Fall Out Boy is nonsense is to paint a target on one’s intellect and fall prey to one of the two edges of the postmodern sword: being branded as ignorant. “You just don’t understand,” they’ll retort. “You are to harsh on it. You can’t expect the artists’ self-expression to be clear to you.” Or, the worst of all: “I don’t care—it’s a pretty/beautiful/realistic/symphonic/insert-my-own-interpretative-adjective song.”

4. Defensive meaning. Similar to number 3, defensive meaning is only a natural response to relativism in lyrics. When confronted by blurry figures of speech, disparate metaphors, elusive words, fluffy adjectives, and uncertain points, hearers will feel obliged to come up with a meaning to defend 1) the song and 2) why the like it. The hearers will have to pin a meaning on the tail of the song out of being cornered—not because the meaning captured them in the first place. John and I spent a while exploring the different meanings that people read—naturally—in the turbid waters of “Viva la Vida” by Coldplay. All the explanations were prefaced by “what this means to me…” or something along those lines. In the midst of their great search for meaning in the thwarted vocabulary games and baffling “beauty” and laughable imagery of the song, the fans missed Chris Martin’s explanation for why he named the song and the album after seeing a Frida Kahlo painting: “She went through a lot of shit, of course, and then she started a big painting in her house that said ‘Viva la Vida,'” says Martin. “I just loved the boldness of it.”

5. Disengaged experience. The kind of music that is necessary for tools like Spotify to be marketable is music that employs language that requires minimal engagement; the kinds of listeners to whom these tools are marketed are those who, like faithful children of postmodernity, think in terms of accessible, never-ending options rather than careful, specific decisions. Music allow us to jump in and out of it quickly by casting off expectation that we’ll be there until the end; the vestige of telos or eschatological nature of art as fleeting as their airy metaphors. Lyrics of this sort require no effort. And when we are treated to a lyrical passage that does, perhaps in liturgy or in a cantata or a Bob Dylan song, we treat it the same: effortlessly.  In the past, when I was a young boy, the two main buttons to operate a cassette player were “Rewind” and “Play.” In the world of meaningful meaningless lyrics, they are “Play” and “Fast Forward.”

In his essay, Orwell points out that elusive language in political speeches, documents, newspapers, and reports is deceitful and destructive. At least in those media there is a certain required meaning. This is where the fatal stroke is dealt by nonsensical lyrics: they give the impression that meaning exists when there is none. How could it be otherwise? How could the listeners not try to make sense of the poetry? They are using language after all. Words. Adjectives, nouns, prepositions. “It’s set to music, which surely must add some depth to it!” Whereas the man who reads the truncated sentence in the newspaper knows that there is a sprout of meaning actively placed under the towering weight of the most abominable English, the man who abides in lyrical nonsense embarks in a quest to search for meaning and substance that he’ll never find, because it never was there. It only sounds like there should be.

Freedom in Freewriting

Here at New St. Andrews College, people are crazy about two things: reading and writing. Reading has always been a passion; ever since I was young (thanks to the excellent education from my mom) I loved reading. Pick up a book, go to the first page, identify the first word on the upper left corner of the paragraph, and step on the gas. It was easy because I loved it, but also because I knew were to start.

Writing was always a different story.

There are two things in this world that I dread: stepping on a lego and writing a first sentence. Their ability to inflict pain and anger and regret, regret that one went for a walk around the house at 3:00 AM or regret that one decided to sit down in front of a writing machine. It’s those first keystrokes that always seem like the narrow end of a hose—all your thoughts are rushing through the house, flying to get out, but they all get clogged up and it seems that the only ones that do come out are, as Anne Lamott put it in her essay On School Lunches, “shitty first drafts”.

I’ve never gone parachuting or bungee jumping, but I know myself; I know that I will never flinch at taking that first jump into the void. Surely my knees will try to give out under me, but I’ll control them. Surely my heart will start racing; “Excellent!” I need the adrenaline. But I also know myself when I sit in front of the blank page, thoughts ready to rush out and jump onto the page, fingers typing on the air above the keys ready to strike, and I know I’ll dread it. I’ll sit and think. And think. And think. And think more thoughts. By the end of a thirty minute period I’ll have written fifty first sentences and deleted all of them. I don’t use a typewriter, so I don’t get the distinct crunching and slashing and bunching up of a piece of paper and tossing it, like a social outcast, outside of the light on my desk. All I do is hit the sleek, black key with a backwards arrow (a clear reminder of the direction that I’m going) and crunch and slash and bunch up not a piece of paper but any cogent thoughts that could have come out.

I have found freedom in freewriting. It started as an exercise; my Persuasive Writing teacher sat us all down, started a 10-minute stopwatch, and didn’t let us stop writing. We were in class, so we had to use ball-point pens.

Words; a fountain full of them, my hands. Thoughts started coming faster than I could write them down. A verb and another, and another, and then—Aha!—a new thought comes on the oncoming traffic lane, collides against my current direction, and shifts my words like the switch on a train track. But the words keep coming, and it’s glorious. I’ve never written so much in so little time. My ink becomes sloppy and slanted; words jumble up and slide around the page but I keep going. This is what it feels like to write.

I have one minute and thirty seconds left on my 20-minute freewriting exercise. Veni, vidi, scribi. And when that timer screams the end, it’s amazing: like a sudden net springing in front of a car and violently stopping it as it slices down the highway, or a rugged catcher’s mitt intercepting the tremendous eagerness of the baseball to keep going, that’s how the timer stops me. If it didn’t go off, I could keep going.

Give me a blank page. I’ll write you a first sentence. You’ll have to stop me once words begin to trickle down my fingers.

I’m Back.

I was doubtful of how to title this post––if it is a post. Two years of adventures and suddenly I’m back on the grid with much to say. Yes, I have much to write, but sometimes I feel like I don’t know the words.

It’s like coming back from the dead, really. My blog, like a little stream of water, was starting to pick up a bit of momentum back when I cared, but then one day the water source dried up. I vanished without another word published and then come back today, almost two years later, like a reanimated corpse springing from a coffin in the midst of his live family members who look aghast, run for cover, and faint after a short, squeaky yelp. What do I say first? Hello, I’m back, I come in peace? I didn’t actually die—I went to learn for two years; sorry I didn’t have time to say goodbye? Remember me? I have more to say now than just “Ayn Rand was not godly”. I don’t want to scare them off. I need to make them trust me; make them believe I’m back.

Disappearing, unfortunately, was too easy—I mean, leaving a blog with a handful of readers (faithful readers, and I thank you for it, but still a handful) isn’t terribly difficult. Like closing the Facebook profile with ten friends or this Twitter account, stepping away from this blog was a matter of logging off one day. Then, 641 days later, I talked to my Latin professor about writing, and he suggested that I reset my password and start typing again.

If I needed an apology, this is it: I’m sorry I left. If you didn’t miss me at all (“The What Vault?? Oh, I vaguely remember. It was all about Ayn Rand.”) and just want me to skip the niceties and start writing, then I won’t waste any more time.

Let’s get to it.

What Is The Chief End Of Man? The Philosophy of Atlas Shrugged

 In the post about my first thoughts of Atlas Shrugged, I said that this book is like reading a novel, a philosophy textbook, and a religious book packed in 1,200 pages of explicit ideological statements. Ayn Rand utilized the vehicle of novel to transmit her worldview, called Objectivism. I had never heard of Objectivism before, so my first brush with it was all but a brush. It was a head-on, full speed collision.

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” In essence, while the Westminster Catechism (through Biblical reasoning) argues that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, Objectivism argues that, “By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man—every man—is an end in himself, he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.“Rand utilizes her narrative to show how men who do not live by this philosophy of life will not only be unhappy but be against those who are happy, and there lies the first danger: Objectivism is incredibly practical, especially in the situation of the world today.

Now that is just wrong, right? The final statement, the highest expression of Objectivism, is indeed wrong, yet a lot of the foundational premises and arguments that are used to reach this conclusion are not wrong. As I read Atlas Shrugged one of the most dangerous things I noticed was the fact that you could quote entire lines of dialogue or long sentences and present Biblical truth. This book is a great example of why no one should quote sentences (or Bible verses, as is terribly common) out of context; not just out of the context of the scene, situation, or character, but out of the whole philosophical context of the work itself, the ideology presented from cover to cover (or in my case, from the first push of a button to the last, as I read it on Kindle).

Take, for example, the following paragraph: “Sweep aside those parasites of subsidized classrooms, who live on the profits of the mind of others and proclaim that man needs no morality, no values, no code of behavior. They, who post as scientists and claim that man is only an animal, do not grant him inclusion in the law of existence they have granted to the lowest of insects.” In this paragraph (and literally hundreds of others like it), Rand blatantly attacks those who deny reason, truth, objectivity, morality, and a framework of behavior. She is against existentialists and postmodernists. Nevertheless, though I’m also against postmodernist nonthinkers, I would not want to frame that quote and hang it over my bed, because the philosophical context of the book, the worldview in which Rand’s narrative is sustained, it wrong.

Objectivism, in a sense, is an attempt to justify a self-indulgent idolization of man by man. Man as the highest purpose of man, as the its only goal, as its only means of getting things done. The world, this worldview argues, works because man makes it work. However, “man” is a rather broad concept, so Rand narrows it down to man’s mind. The mind that man possesses, his ability to think and the usage of this ability is his highest moral purpose. Thus, in the book, the villains are those that exploit man’s mind and steal its products. Man thinks, man creates, man enjoys his creation. Those who insert themselves in the middle of the process and profit from someone else’s thinking by forcefully taking it away are the parasites and looters.  Atlas Shrugged was criticized by many as a justification and encouragement of greed. Regarding this, I agree with Rand that Objectivism is not a an encouragement of greed; it’s just a justification and encouragement of selfishness and of putting man higher than it should be: in a state of sinlessness. Those who believe in Objectivism are “against those who believe that one man must exist for the sake of another.”

Objectivism, logically, is utterly and completely against Christianity. Objectivism says that the only way that man can know a framework of morality is through thinking. When a man denies that he can think, he denies morality and becomes a looter and a parasite. The catch, though, is that Objectivism falsely ascertains that man’s mind is inherently good.  Thus, Rand says this about Christianity: “Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge—he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil—he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor—he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire—he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy—all the cardinal values of his existence.” Of all the worldviews in the world, the one that is against Objectivism the most is Christianity. Rand argues that Christianity damns man for being man, and, in fact, she’s right. The problem is that she does not understand that man’s own mind is inherently sinful, and so the so-called moral framework that it provides is distorted too. The incompatibility of the two worldviews, as is evident, starts from square one. In terms of James W Sire’s questions of worldview provided in The Universe Next Door, Rand fails to correctly answer the question What is a human being? Sire says, “Human beings are created in the image of God and thus possess personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, morality, gregariousness, and creativity.” Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Rand fails to understand many things that can ultimately be summed up in two points: 1) She doesn’t understand nor acknowledge the existence of God, and 2) she doesn’t understand how God’s qualities are reflected in human beings, both in saved and unsaved people. That’s why Rand loathes the idea of a man/god dying for humans who, in her own observation, need no rescuing.”Why rescue humans from their own minds, if their own minds are their basis for existence?” she would ask. Romans 8:7 has the answer: “For the mind that is set on the flesh ishostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”

Objectivism is a fascinating worldview. As I read the book, I realized that I had never met such a largely constructed worldview that attempts to answer the seven basic questions of worldviews. Nevertheless, I also realize that Objectivism is a narrative with loopholes that are not answered not because Rand didn’t want to answer them but because she is a victim of her own philosophy. By believing that her mind provides a justification for existence and a perfect moral framework she put herself in a paradoxical position where man’s mind is individual yet thought is collective. Subjectivism ensues when man rejects God and decided to define ethics based on a false concept of man’s existence as an axiom of intelligence. In the end, Objectivism is a worldview of fools, because “the fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God'” (Psalm 14:1).

-Santiago

Note: I have now returned to this space in the digital world after a two and a half week break. I had final exams, I went to the US for the gathering of my online school and my high school graduation, and I had been writing reviews for the Film Dissectors site. For those who thought I would stop writing, well, I’m back. Thank you for visiting and stay tuned for more posts.

The Film Dissectors

I was recently invited by a very good friend of mine and co-student of a film class last year to join a film review site project that he’s managing, and I decided to post something quick about it to give you a bit of a background of what the site is about and let you know that sometimes, instead of blogging here, I’ll be posting a review there.The site is called “The Film Dissectors” and it’s going to be updated very constantly with new reviews by my friend Eric, his father, a few friends from his church, and also by me. The approach of the reviews, however, is very different from the vast majority of Christian review sites out there.

First of all, we will be focusing on a complete analysis of the film: film as an aesthetic vehicle for the propagation of a worldview argument. Contrary to the idea of film reviews as a way to spot the  “objective content” and bash the film without a complete analysis of what it is really saying, our reviews will leave the choice to watch it or not to the viewer’s discretion.  Does this mean that we aim to be neutral? Absolutely not; in fact, we will criticize or praise a film according to not how many bad words it has but how it works and what it is saying.

Secondly, our review site aims to be just that, a “review” site, for people to go and “view again” the film in their minds, aided by the analysis that is in the posts. Of course, anyone can read the reviews, whether they have seen the film or not, but since we are reviewing and not previewing, we do not aim to provide any sort of prejudice before someone watches a film unless they read a review before watching the film in question. If you have a question about the content, go to the MPAA. If you have a question about what the film is saying about the world and how it says it, go to “The Film Dissectors.

I will be posting a quick note here whenever I post there, but if you don’t want to miss all the great reviews that we have written so far and those that are about to come, make sure to subscribe to the site. Right now there are two reviews up, Taken by Eric and The Prestige by me.

-Santiago

Review: The Greener Grass Conspiracy

Yesterday I learned that I am part of the largest gaming community on earth. I’ve always enjoyed video games a lot, and have been part of the Xbox LIVE community, the PlayStation 3 online community, and a few PC games as well. However, when my copy of “The Greener Grass Conspiracy” arrived yesterday and I started reading, I realized that I had been involved in the largest game of all time since I was born, a game larger than any other digital or physical game. According to Altrogge, we are all playing the “If Only” game. The rules are really simple: think about that thing which you think will make you happy when you get it, will complete your life when you obtain it, and will make everything perfect. Then, add “if only” before that thing and start playing – and being unhappy. If only I had the house on the other side of town, everything would be perfect. If only that pretty girl liked me and I could marry her, I would be the happiest person alive. If only, if only, if only…

“The Greener Grass Conspiracy: Finding Contentment on Your Side of the Fence” is a very well-written and compelling book that analyzes happiness and contentment in a very practical way. Altrogge begins his analysis of why we are unhappy by nailing the blame on a conspiracy that is fueled by the world, by Satan, but primarily, by us. The problem is that we are, as Calvin puts it and Altrogge quotes, “a factory of idols”. Altrogge begins to analyze the human heart and why we are so prone to keep creating new idols whenever we’ve obtained what we want. According to Altrogge, material things are not evil, but they become idols when we stake our happiness in them, when our well-being and contentment depends entirely on whether we own the newest 51-inch LED screen or the newest shoes. The problem, though, does not lie in what we want or even in the fact that we want things; the problem lies on the fact that we demand from God as if he owed us something even though the only thing he owed us was Hell and instead we received Everlasting Life and Salvation through Jesus Christ. “Idolatry is insanity”, says Altrogge. How can we demand something from God if he freely gave us Life? Altrogge also argues that contentment isn’t acquired, but is learned. He uses Paul’s example of contentment in every situation in Philippians to present a case about how contentment and happiness are not only a necessary part of a Christian’s life but are also obtainable through hard work and prayer.

The style of the book is very engaging because it is written in such a way that you feel like you’re actually in a conversation with Altrogge. I’ve read a few non-fiction books that tried to be funny but ended up being downright silly or annoyingly full of humor that even a 12-year old could structure better. “The Greener Grass Conspiracy” is very funny in a real way – in the natural, conversational way with a relaxed yet wise person. Altrogge’s writing is clear, concise, and full of Biblical content that must be practiced every day. His use of relational examples make the book even clearer for people who are struggling with unhappiness and idols and want God to help them get rid of those so that they can enjoy true happiness in knowing that they have “treasures in Heaven” that surpass anything that could be bought with a small, metal disk.

Overall, I highly recommend this book whether you are struggling with contentment or not, because even if you are not struggling with idols and unhappiness, it provides a good preemptive defense against the new creations that your “factory of idols” may produce. The book is a great example of deep, doctrinal content in an easy-to-read style that is not only satisfying to read but also convicting.

“Greener Grass Conspiracy” Trailer – Stephen Altrogge from Crossway on Vimeo.

-Santiago

Note: I’ve been busy this week with papers and assignments, but I was given the opportunity by Crossway Books to make a pre-release review of “The Greener Grass Conspiracy.”I will still continue the “Atlas Shrugged” review after this.


How To Create A World To Destroy It: The Mechanics of Atlas Shrugged

One of my favorite kinds of stories are the utopian-dystopian/apocalyptic stories, and the reason why I like them is that, when written correctly, this kind of stories usually portray a heavy emotional and philosophical response from the character’s parts, mainly because their world or society is ending. People tend to think differently when everything is being destroyed and changed; their core values are tested and usually broken simply because everything, especially their mind, is headed towards certain destruction-or has already undergone one.  Even before I finished the book, I realized that this book was telling a story about how to end the world – not only about what would happen if the world ended a certain way, but how to make it end a certain way.

Atlas Shrugged is the story of how the world changes and ends when the minds of the men who support it are removed. The title refers to the titan Atlas, who according to Greek mythology, supported the heavens as a punishment for fighting against the gods; thus, if he were to shrug, the whole celestial sphere would fall down into nothingness. The story is set in the United States in an unnamed time (some time around the 1950’s, judging by the technology and the clothing) when, at first, the economy is stable, people have jobs, politicians are comfortable, and industrialists are inventing new things, producing new products, and managing their multi-million dollar companies – all for the good of the country. The rest of the world’s countries seem to have slowly transformed into communist entities, since they are referred to as “The People’s State of England”, “The People’s State of Mexico”, “The People’s State of Turkey”, etc., where the government keeps nationalizing businesses. The main protagonist (and I say main because there are several protagonists) is Dagny Taggart, the heiress of Taggart Transcontinental, the largest, fastest, and best-run railroad company in the United States. Dagny runs the company alongside her brother James, surprisingly so because they are polar opposites of each other. The secondary protagonist is Hank Rearden, the owner of Rearden Steel. Hank has invented a new metal, properly dubbed “Rearden Metal”, which he claims is the stronger than steel, lasts longer, and is cheaper. The U.S. government is slowly beginning to enforce stricter regulations on privately owned companies, and Rearden Metal is seen as a threat to the stability and equality of opportunities of other metal producers in the country; the metal is, therefore, attacked on false claims of brittleness, bad molecular structure, and other such quality-denigrating statements to prevent people from using it. Dagny, however, sees it as it really is – a powerful innovation – and creates her own railroad line, The John Galt Line, built entirely from Rearden Metal. When the public realizes that the metal is actually what it claims to be, the sales of Rearden Metal skyrocket and suddenly everyone who needs metal to manufacture their products begins to use it, pushing all the other metal producers to a financial crisis. The government, through a series of bad decisions, ends up nationalizing the metal, then other businesses, and eventually take over the railroads, forcing owners to change their rates and lose money, which in turn causes people to lose jobs in a mass scale,  which in turn sends the country into a financial, societal, and ideological chaos. (I make it seem as if it all happens very quickly; in the book, all this slowly begins to unfold from page 1 all the way to the end). However, not everyone is ready to have their business nationalized under the banner of “I Am My Brother’s Keeper.” Industrialists, teachers, artists, musicians, philosophers, many of them disappear into thin air when the country -the government and the people who depend on their products, teachings, ideas – needs them the most. Unable to produce the necessary things for its survival, the United States slowly but surely begins to crumble.

Rand utilizes the setting of her altered world to create a relatable and seemingly secure democratic United States in which people are able to enjoy financial and societal stability. The United States, specifically New York, are referenced throughout the story as a body, with the Taggart railroad being the veins through which all the nutrients flow. The industries, the companies, the businesses, they are all more than systems in a country; Rand utilizes them as characters – dying characters that are slowly murdered because they are looted by the government. The personal characters themselves are amongst the most developed that I have encountered, mainly because Rand understands that the deepest philosophies are communicated through stories by the persons in the story. The childhoods of Dagny, James, and Francisco d’Anconia (another protagonist who owns the largest copper mine company and teaches Dagny about the philosophy of money and business) are carefully crafted to emphasize Rand’s constant point that in order for a person to think correctly, he must start to do so during childhood. Nevertheless, Rand focuses mostly on the prime years of her characters, emphasizing the fact that personal relationships can either help to construct or deconstruct a person’s being. The characters themselves become metaphors for a specific mindset: the politicians, Hank’s family members, Dagny’s brother, all of them represent the “looters” and “moochers”, or basically those that reject objective values, seek to escape reality, and feed on other people’s produce and demand it as their own. The “men of the mind” are represented by Dagny, Hank, Francisco, and other artists and businessmen who believe in an objective world with objective morals and refuse to live their lives for the sake of others and refuse to have people feed from their produce as if it were rightfully theirs. Even though each character falls in either of these extremes, each character also portrays his or her respective side differently from others who are on the same team.  Since this novel is the maximum expression of Rand’s worldview and since she wanted other people to understand it and embrace it, she utilizes some characters to carefully present a transition, or religious conversion, to her objectivist philosophy. All stories rely on some elements of storytelling more than in others; Atlas Shrugged is a story that relies fundamentally on characters, on the way they think, and on the way they live their lives, because the story is about people. It could almost be said that Rand’s radical worldview stems first from a radical “person-view”. Rand redefines the human being through her characters to better define the world.

Next time, I’ll be analyzing Objectivism in Atlas Shrugged and how the the philosophy of the author changes the plot of the story. If the characters and the narrative of the story don’t make much sense at this point, don’t worry, I will clear them up a lot more in the worldview analysis.

-Santiago

Atlas Shrugged: A Few Words Before I Begin

Given the fact that all stories communicate a specific message about the world, it is always important to analyze the aesthetics as a vehicle for the propagation of that message. I think it’s good to, at first,  analyze the technical side and philosophical side separately and then to conglomerate the two to understand how the story works as a whole, as an integration of all its parts. The problem, however, is that the more complex a story gets, the more difficult it is to separate the technical side from the philosophical side. If the author is a good author, he will choose his vehicle carefully so that it not only fits the message but enhances it (this is one of the reasons why I do not think that the Atlas Shrugged film will be good). So, before I go on a tangent, I’ll start the analysis by first clarifying that I will not analyze the aesthetics of this novel as standalone elements but as technical parts that serve to enhance a worldview. Similarly, I will analyze the story’s portrayal of an ideology through its most important parts. Hence, spoilers will be present in the following posts, but I can assure you that if you are interested in reading the book, the spoilers will not give away the ending and will not strip the story from it’s hooking plotline.

-Santiago

Atlas Shrugged: First Thoughts

Last semester I was busy reading books for my thesis and for my history, rhetoric/philosophy courses, and since I enjoy good stories, I always like to squeeze a novel somewhere in my schedule. Before school started I had read several novels; during the first semester of school I read several of Brad Thor’s Scot Harvath books which were recommended to me by a good friend of mine. Since those books were dead-on “easy reading”, I felt that I need something deep, something thrilling, something volatile. Little did I know that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged would turn out to be a nuclear bomb of a narrative.

I don’t think I can count how many books I’ve read, but what I can count are the number of excellent books that I’ve read, and this book gets really, really close to obtaining the excellence stamp on its cover. Reading this book is like reading a novel, a philosophy textbook, and a religious book packed in 1,200 pages of explicit ideological statements, which, bluntly put, are lies.

The first and only time that I read Rand before was last summer; unfortunately, when I read Anthem (an anti-collectivism novella published in 1937) I started reading it after sitting for three hours in the waiting room of a hospital in Atlanta, and since my friend’s Kindle was low on battery, I blazed through the story too quickly and too tiredly to pay real attention to detail. I knew nothing about her, nothing about her style, and nothing about her philosophy. Now that I know more about those three things, I will write a bit about the first two in this post and then a few posts about the latter, the philosophy. (I’ll try to keep this as clearly ordered as I can but there is simply so much content that I might extend this posts a little longer than usual, and if I write something that contains spoilers, I’ll have a warning label).

The first thing I do when I am exposed to a new work of art is to find out about the artist and the generals of the work itself, and that is exactly what I did when I bought this book. When I read her biography on Wikipedia, a few points stood out to me (particularly about her early years), so I want to focus on those things about her that I thought were interesting, at least in the context of her writing and Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand was born in Russia on February 2, 1905, basically when the Russian Revolution was still in the cooking pot.  The historic context must have influenced her mind greatly, since both Wikipedia and the short biographical section at the end of the book mention that at the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917, when she was twelve years old, she already had sided with a specific faction of the revolt. It could be said that, politically, she woke up very early in the middle of nightmarish times which had so much force that they actually paved much of the cultural, philosophical, and religious prologue of her twelve-year old mind. Most of her long-lasting life choices were made while she was in high school, mainly, her “conversion” to atheism, her rejection of the mysticism and collectivism ideals of the new Russian culture, and her desire to become a writer. I think it’s easy to see what kind of mind will be produced when it has been exposed to these things and has made choices of its own based on those experiences at a very early age: a radical mind. With this idea about her was how I jumped into the book. Concerning her writing style, I was struck by her use of language, considering that her native language was not English. Rand moved to the United States in 1925 at the age of twenty, and even though she knew how to read French, German, and Russian, she started to refine her knowledge of modern Anglo-Saxon once she established herself there. The range of her vocabulary and grammar is impressive, making every description and every new situation vibrant with fresh words and syntax. As a non-native English speaker, this was particularly inspiring for me since I’m always striving to increase my knowledge of English, especially since it’s my main platform for academic and fictional writing.

I will end this first post on Atlas Shrugged here because I do not want to write an essay in a single blog post. Join me next time when I’ll analyze the technical/aesthetic side of Rand’s work and when I’ll start to enter the discussion of her philosophy: Objectivism. For now, I’ll just leave by stating a question that has been on my mind ever since I finished the book: How do you write a 1200 page novel based on lies? My answer is that it must have some truth in it.

-Santiago

Watch Closely…

Watch closely...not everything is as it seems.

My house is positioned exactly adjacent to a large forest where many red squirrels, birds, and other animals live; yet, some of the squirrels are not content with their 2,000+ acres of land and decide to go into our yard and eat the fruit from our trees and do other malevolent acts. Well, they aren’t really so evil, but still, when a bowhunter sees one jumping among trees and rocks right outside his window….

Aye, it was quite a shot, if I do say so myself. My brother Nicolas took charge of the skinning process, applying the almost-universal rule for tanning animal skin and fur in addition to some eggs and mayonnaise, and the resulting pelt was excellent, although we only had it for one day since my German Shepherd smelled the “ingredients” and ate it. If you want to see a picture of the pelt, head over to my brother’s blog: Bagpipes and Ink. And if you want to know the almost-universal rule for tanning animal skin, make sure to leave him a comment!

Until the next hunt,

-Santiago